The Ephemeral Real, Part II: The Passenger

By Drew JohnsonSeptember 9, 2014

The Ephemeral Real, Part II: The Passenger

(This is Part II in a series on The Ephemeral Real, a meditation on cinema and history)


the ephemeral real and real film, real murder

I PROBABLY should have started with a less problematic example of the ephemeral real. But in Antonioni’s 1975 tale, The Passenger, Jack Nicholson plays a television journalist traveling in Africa. Presented with an opportunity to steal the identity of a dead man, he takes it. He goes on the run, as this new man. But his new life hunts him as his old life hunts him, too. That’s the plot of the movie.

Along the way, there are a few cul-de-sacs. One of those scenes shows a beach and an execution. We see a man die — and, supposedly, the footage is unstaged, genuinely documentary.

The ephemeral real can be inserted to mean as much as it will to those who recognize and remember a particular incident, the year the Costa Concordia sank, the fact that the captain abandoned ship, and so forth, but the power of the ephemeral real can be driven by what we don’t know enough to know — even by what we don’t want to know. Some images of the real defer our recognition.

We see the condemned man first, without introduction, framed onscreen as the story has been framed. We likely register that the footage is grainier, that Jack Nicholson is nowhere to be seen, that the long, slow shots of Antonioni have been replaced by the earnest editing of newsreel. We may or may not remember that Jack Nicholson is playing a television journalist.


If this framing continued, I couldn’t include it in this essay: plenty of footage visually out of step with the movie around it is presented as that movie’s reality. There’s the WWII aerial combat footage, say, incorporated into a film like Flying Leathernecks, or the footage of Soviet tanks in Prague edited into scenes with Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche as part of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

This is not that. This footage is an object, an edited, unstable object.

A procession leads a bound man along a shore. He is tied to a scaffold against a backing of oil drums. An announcement is made. He confers with a priest. Four soldiers goose-step out to a point somewhere in front of him. We see him shot, but it is only the abrupt small tugging of reality, not James Caan at the tollbooth. They fire several volleys, his bound arms lift, apparently involuntarily, then he slumps.

Suddenly the frame shifts and we see we are watching the footage in an editing room — we are not also on the beach. Nicholson’s wife (Jenny Runacre) and his colleague (Ian Hendry; remember Ian as we’ll see him again) are watching an onscreen death, possibly for a documentary or a newscast. There’s other footage in film cans and hanging from racks all around them. Hendry is a newsman, but he’s a bit numb — jaded. Without thinking, he’s shown his colleague’s newly widowed wife an African death, something she believes has just happened to her husband. She’s upset, sure. He stops the footage. As we watch them talk, as she prepares to leave, the man stays slumped on the screen, the image on the front of the box in the room where two people are talking.


As Auden says about Brueghel’s Icarus, we can turn “away / Quite leisurely from the disaster,” even snuff footage. The record of a real death swallowed by a film, presented as an object, like film, specific to a time, event, place, person — all of these contingencies are never disclosed to us. But its slightly askew reality jars us — as Antonioni wants us to be jarred — but not for very long — as perhaps he also intended.

As best I can uncover, the footage was shot in Nigeria, either on the shore of Lake Chad, or on the public beach in Lagos. It may be footage of an execution that a new regime publicized to show their serious and stately ways. But the footage, like the Africa in The Passenger, is presented without identifiers. The internet will tell you many strange and unlikely things about the footage. It was shot in Chad. No, in Ghana. Shot in secret by two second-unit men in Antonioni’s employ. No, Antonioni acquired it but had to promise to keep the specifics of who and what and where to himself. Oh, wait, they say it wasn’t Chad, but they were thinking of Chad. The screenwriter says he didn’t want to use the footage.

The web will even (absurdly) tell you that this is footage of the execution of Patrice Lumumba himself.

There is an interesting detective essay to write getting to the bottom of who this executed man was, both robbing him of his status as an anonymous casualty of Africa and returning his identity, if not his life. Antonioni took that identity away in bleakest satire — he likely knew what it meant to present a national struggle on the knife edge of the real — but the weird power of the universal conquers despite this: no names, no place names, no specifics: Africa. Even meant as commentary, it is what it pretends to be.

Philip Fisher once wrote that the events of Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” were too terrible to be digested by society. He was hopeful in saying so, and wrong. Melville, less hopeful, presented his fiction as a documentary record told through official documents. One proof of what can and cannot be tolerated.

This is one sort of ephemeral real.


Drew Johnson lives in Maitland, Florida — by way of Mississippi, Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia — and has recently completed a novel.

LARB Contributor

Drew Johnson’s grandmother played piano to accompany the silent films showing at her father’s theater in Pearl City, Hawaii, in the 1920s. Johnson’s other grandfather managed the Rialto — a B-movie theater in Danville, Virginia — in the ’40s and ’50s: monster movies, live performers, barbecue. In his own lifetime, Drew has spent some hours staring at the screen. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The Literary Review, VQR, New England Review, The Cupboard, and elsewhere. His essays and other writing have appeared or are forthcoming at The Literary Hub, The Paris Review Daily, The Cincinnati Review, The Believer, Bookslut, and elsewhere. He lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts — by way of Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, and Florida.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!